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We are called to work in this broken world "for such a time as this" Interview with WCC president Rev. Dr Bernice Powell Jackson

We are called to work in this broken world "for such a time as this" Interview with WCC president Rev. Dr Bernice Powell Jackson

Rev. Dr Bernice Powell Jackson

21 September 2006

By Alexander Belopopsky (*)

Rev. Dr Bernice Powell Jackson is an ordained minister of the United Church of Christ in the USA. A member of the World Council of Churches' (WCC) central committee since 1998, she has worked for more than three decades on civil rights, human rights and justice issues. She was elected as one of the WCC presidents at the 9th Assembly in 2006. In this interview, she talks about her life-long commitment to justice, some of her sources of spiritual inspiration, and some of the current challenges she sees for the churches in the ecumenical movement.

How did you first become involved in the ecumenical movement and what was your first contact with the WCC?

My involvement with the ecumenical movement dates back to the early 1970s. First on a local level with the New York City Council of Churches and then with the National Council of Churches (NCC). My late first husband, Rev. Robert Powell, was the Africa Secretary for the NCC and I met many African ecumenical leaders during that time before his death in 1981.

My first contact with the WCC was with the US office of the WCC during the time that Joan Brown Campbell was the programme executive. I then came onto the board of the US Conference of WCC member churches and went to the Harare Assembly in 1998, where I was elected to the central committee.

Please tell us something about your church life and commitment. What have been your sources of spiritual guidance and inspiration?

I was ordained in the United Church of Christ only in 2005, after working for many years on the national staff of the UCC. I have always felt a calling by God to do the justice work of the church, but have also worked in administrative positions and increasingly I found myself called to pastoral functions. In late 2005 I left the national staff and have since been doing consulting work as well as speaking and writing. Right now I am doing pastoral ministry and visioning with a New Orleans UCC congregation which is without a pastor, as it tries to re-build after the hurricane.

One of my sources of spiritual inspiration for many years has been Archbishop Desmond Tutu, whom I have known for 30 years and with whom I worked in the 1980s, setting up a scholarship fund for South African refugee students. The power of his work for justice and reconciliation and healing continues to inspire me.

I also have two spiritual guides whom I never knew: Harriet Tubman, the 19th century American slave who led over 300 slaves to freedom and who did not wait for someone to tell her what to do, she just did it. The second is Howard Thurman, a great 20th century theologian and preacher, who was a strong influence on Dr Martin Luther King, Jr.

How do you see the current situation of the global ecumenical movement?

I believe that the ecumenical movement faces both great challenges and great opportunities. The challenges are how to be more relevant for the average Christian in the pew and to make them feel more a part of a world-wide ecumenical movement. Similarly, the challenges are how to fund the movement and how to develop new partnerships with evangelical churches, our Catholic brothers and sisters and with church agencies.

The opportunities are to provide new models for how we can work on critical issues with our brothers and sisters of other faiths, particularly working on behalf of peace and justice in this broken world. I am especially excited about the International Ecumenical Peace Convocation which is planned by WCC for 2011. We have an opportunity to show the world an alternative vision - a vision of God's holy mountain, a vision of abundance for all, not just the few; a vision of peace and a world of justice. The opportunities also include finding new ways to involve youth and young adults in the work and the decision-making of the ecumenical movement and to help them to see that their faith is relevant in today's world.

What do you see as your role as WCC president?

As for my role, I see it primarily as a spokesperson on behalf of the WCC in North America, particularly on such priorities as the Decade to Overcome Violence. I also see it as helping to communicate the work of the WCC to the people in local churches. Communication is becoming increasingly important in the 21st century.

What do you see as the specific role of the US churches at this time?

As for the role of US churches, I believe we are continuing to be called to speak out for justice and peace, particularly since our nation is the world's superpower. That's why the US Decade to Overcome Violence committee continues to work and to focus on young people and on getting them involved in this work. We are also called to work on globalization and world-wide poverty.

As WCC president, what is your message to the member churches?

My message to the member churches of the WCC is the message of Haman to Esther, we are called to work in this broken world "for such a time as this." The world desperately needs a word of justice and peace, a message of reconciliation, hope and healing, the good news of Jesus Christ. We have so much to learn from each other and so much to share with the world. It is an exciting time to be a part of the WCC!

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(*) Alexander Belopopsky is the coordinator of the WCC's Public Information Team.

Biographical information and a free high-resolution photo of Rev. Dr Bernice Powell Jackson: